It was just another day in Iowa, gateway to the other large rectangular states. Most people think of Iowa's main exports as corn, cows and Captain Kirk, but my daily grind takes me to the seamier side of the state. The one where the major export is crime.
My job? To put a stop to it. That's why they call me Margo.
I had just twisted the lid off a bottle of the only corn product I'm not so sick of that it could make me puke just to look at when my phone rang. There was time enough for two large gulps before the phone made it from its cradle to my ear. "Hello?" I breathed fire into the receiver.
"Mz. Embargo? There's something I think you should see down at the airport."
"Nice to hear from you, too, Solgar. What have you got for me?"
"Barrels, Mz. Embargo, but they're leaking a white powdery substance."
"You called the cops yet?"
"Yeah, but so far the only person to show up is a Department of Commerce guy who normally investigates NAFTA violations."
"Whatever." I hung up on him. Courtesy was for paying customers, not "informants" who saw conspiracies inside every piece of freight to cross the tarmac. Bryan Solgar knew I'd be out there within twenty minutes. Just like he knew I'd rip him a new emergency exit if he was wasting my time.
Once I got to his office, though, it looked like I'd have to take a number and wait in line.
"Is there a price list for these barrels of cooking sherry?" The man leaning over Solgar's desk was tall, broad about the shoulders and wearing a suit that looked like it had been taken off a GQ model, but only after the guy had been mugged, beaten and left for dead in a dumpster for three days.
"I... I don't know, sir, but it's not cooking sherry inside the barr..."
"Let me ask you a question, Selzar. Are you familiar with a practice called 'dumping'?"
"It's Solgar, si..."
"Dumping is when Tiajuana Joe sends up fifty tons of corn that we're selling for two fifty a bushel, and then they sell it right here for a buck per bushel." The man leaned in close enough to let Solgar figure out which brand and tint of hair dye he used. "Do you know what that kind of undercutting could do to the average farmer up here, Selzar? Do you?"
"Do they grow corn in Tiaju...?"
"It could run them out of business!" the man roared. "Send good old Joe Farmer to the poorhouse, cost him his family farm, force him to pimp out his daughters just to put food on the table. But not on my watch, mister. No, sir, not on my watch. So do you care to explain to me why you are wasting my valuable time inspecting cooking sherry that does not appear to be for resale when American jobs are on the line?"
"But it's not cooking sherry inside the..."
"I don't care what kind of sherry it is! I want to know what they're selling it for, damn you!"
This sounded like it was going to take a while. Turning around, I went down to the hangar to take a look at these barrels myself.
In a nod to energy conservation, only a few emergency lights were on, creating an artificial night until the need to illuminate human effort arose again. I fished a Mag-Lite out of my purse and wandered between the pallets of shrink wrapped goods and crates waiting to be loaded on their flights out.
Staged near the loading area were thirty barrels in orderly rows. "Cooking sherry" had been stenciled on the sides, and a faintly alcoholic aroma hung in the still air in counterpoint to the scents of oil and dust. The thin beam of the Mag-Lite danced over them as I walked slowly past. I kicked the nearest. Motes of a powdery white substance danced through the beam.
Frowning, I bent down and ran a finger along the barrel. It came away with a fine coating of powder. I took a cautious sniff. Was that...? A quick taste confirmed my suspicions. Clicking the flashlight off, I took a few steps away to contemplate the facts as they had presented themselves. In the dark, I reached into my purse for a pack of coffin nails and a match, allowing the red glow of the cigarette to provide a kind of meditational focus as the nicotine sped up the process of painting an overview of the situation. It was obvious that something didn't add up here, but what was the big picture?
I inhaled deeply, listening to faint crackle of tobacco leaves combusting. Above the sound came the almost equally soft whisper of shoe leather over concrete. I ducked and spun, swinging my purse behind me.
There was a sharp crack as a crowbar whistled through the air and splintered a crate inches from where my head had been a split second before. The assailant cursed as my Gucci connected with his jaw on an upswing. From somewhere near the staging area, a flash of light and a sharp report followed by the near simultaneous twang of a bullet meeting sheet metal let me know the stakes had just been bumped up a notch.
Spewing words no gentleman says in front of a lady, my dance partner flung himself amongst the barrels for cover. "Oh, no, buddy, it ain't that easy," I snarled and dove after him. A burst of splintered wood and a cloud of white dust put a little extra urgency to our motions as we scrabbled between the barrels of mystery cargo. Looking back over his shoulder, my new friend aimed a steel-toed boot at my face, catching my shoulder with a bruising blow that was sure to put a damper on my enthusiasm for wearing a brassiere for a week or two. Growling, I flung myself on his leg and aimed a mean right hook at his nuts. He could look forward to putting on his tighty-whiteys with the same fondness I was going to have toward my bra straps.
The bang of a door and the patter of footsteps announced that the cavalry had finally arrived. "Hit the lights!" shouted a voice I recognized as belonged to the fed. "Department of Commerce! Everyone throw down their weapons and come out with their hands up!"
"You've got to be kidding me," I heard a rough voice from off behind the crates. As inclined to agree with him as I might have been, I was a little too busy to comment. A series of clunks accompanied the rows of fluorescent lighting cycling on overhead as I crawled over the groaning form of my buddy. With clenched teeth, he twisted to throw a punch at me, but he lacked the leverage to put much force behind it. I shouldered that one, too, lunging to get my weight on his chest to pin him and then bringing my purse down on him with a solid overhand swing. Behind me, footsteps and the sound of a fire alarm told the story of the one who was getting away, but a few more belts from my handbag ensured that by the time my pal woke up, the only ride off into the sunset in his future would be in the backseat of a police cruiser.
"Freeze!" shouted a voice above the staccato of booted heels sprinting in my direction. I stood up and tossed my purse onto the lid of the wounded barrel, reaching up to tuck a strand of hair back into a barrette as the boys finally arrived on the scene.
"There's one down there," I nodded towards the unconscious perp. "The one with the gun bolted through the fire exit. This guy only had a crowbar."
"Are you all right, honey?" The D.o.C. goon was at the front of the pack, and the first to push his way over to where all the action had happened. I watched with no small satisfaction as the condescending look on his face gave way to shock. "What the hell did you do to his face?"
"Hit him with my purse," I smiled coolly, using the small talk as an excuse to take careful note of the contents of the broken barrel.
"What the hell did you have in there? A brick?"
".44 Magnum," I replied absently. The hole had allowed a few liters of powder to spill out and pool on the floor, where my date and I had wallowed through it and spread it around. From what I could see in the barrel, there didn't appear to be anything else inside. Curious. "Packs one hell of a punch whether you pull the trigger or not." My preference was not. I've only had to fire it twice in self defense. The first time, I was hiding under a desk; the noise in that enclosed an area left my ears ringing for days. The second time was at the big convenience store shoot-out last July, and the recoil sprained my wrist. I blame early stages of carpal tunnel for weakening the joint.
"Big gun for a little lady," the fed smirked, taking another step or two in my direction as airport security dragged my boy away. "Do you always play that rough?"
I turned to look up into his chiseled features, noting the faint stubble on his jaw and the twitchy "Type A, too much coffee and on the fast track to a stroke" intensity in his contact-lens enhanced green eyes. "Could be," I replied. "How many episodes of 'Queer Eye' did you watch before you settled on that particular hair style?"
He stared down at me as he reached into his slightly rumpled suit jacket and pulled out a badge. "Agent Hertz. Dick Hertz. Department of Commerce. Stelgar over there says that you're a local gumshoe, helped out the airport a couple of times."
"You're kidding me, right?" I glanced at his badge. With a name like that, he had to have been the result of an unwanted pregnancy.
"No, he says you do good work. That local law enforcement appreciates your assistance." Hertz snapped the billfold shut and tucked it back in his pocket. "But this is no case to play 'Nancy Drew' with. I think you're better off staying home and letting the professionals handle this one."
I glanced at my watch and made a note of the time. "You think so, do you? Pardon me." I brushed past him and bent down to retrieve a scrap of paper lying beside a barrel not far from where the impromptu game of Twister had broken out. Carefully, so as not to smudge potential finger prints, I unfolded it to read the writing inside.
"Whatcha got there, sweetheart?" Hertz was on me like a hawk. "Did that come off of Joe Crowbar?"
Obstructing law enforcement has never been my style. Besides, legally, if I wanted a chance to play with the evidence, I had to make my own opportunities. I made another quick note of the time and read aloud,
"You'll have it shipped to my abode
First through Des Moines and then through Dallas
To my secret hidden island palace
Whose location I shall reveal in code:"
"Is that it?"
I turned the paper over, carefully, but was unable to find any other writing. "Looks like it."
"We'll have the boys in Forensics take a look at it downtown," he said and I made another note of the time. "Despite what your little buddy Smoltar thinks, importing chalk ain't illegal, though the fines for mislabeling it will cost em a pretty penny. But assault is a whole different keg of powder. I'm just not sure the two incidents are related."
"Could be," I looked around, hoping to see something else that could bring some sense to this puzzle. "Might not have been related at all. Maybe somebody thought I was you."
Hertz nodded, surveying the barrels with that too-sharp eye. "Could be. You make a lot of enemies in the defense of Free Trade."
I fired him a quick look, but he didn't see it. "Did Solgar show you the bill of lading?"
"Yeah. Came out of Heathrow, with Joe Nobody as the consignor."
"Heathrow, huh? You have access to Interpol records?"
He turned that grim stare back on me. "In my line of work, that's a necessity."
"Do me a favor and let's take a look."
"You hoping to cross-index cooking sherry-related shootings, sweetheart?"
I glanced at my watch. "I was thinking more along the lines of stolen chalk and poetry."
To be continued...